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Improved exam results bring fresh challenges for Scottish Government

Photo: PA

By Peter MacMahon, Political Editor: The waiting is over. The white envelopes (or text messages if you're doing it the modern way) have arrived.

After the months of hard work by them, and by their teachers, Scotland's young people have got their exam results.

And they're pretty good overall.

Scottish students passed 152,701 Highers in 2016, with an attainmentrate of 77.2% - that's grades A to C - though down from 79.2% last year.

A total of 28,300 Scottish applicants have been accepted to higher education - mainly Universities - so far this year, up 5% compared to results day in 2015.

Pass rates for the National 5 qualification, which replaced the old Standard Grade, were 81.8% in 2014, 79.8% for 2015, and 79.4% for 2016. Again that's for grades A to C.

All of which means there will be lots of happy, and some relieved, pupils across Scotland today - who got into the University or college course they wanted, or who got jobs or apprentices thanks to their new qualifications.

There's plenty of happy (and relieved) students today Credit: PA

But, the publication of the results today also throw up some challenges to the Scottish government over key areas of education policy.

The first is access to Universities for the pupils from the poorest parts of Scotland.

The Scottish government is very proud that students here do not pay tuition fees. It helps children from poorer backgrounds get into higher education, they say.

However, to deliver on this policy ministers, through the Scottish Funding Council, have set a cap on the number of Scottish students going to Universities.

Technically it's a cap on the numbers of both Scots and EU students - who also get free tuition.

Universities Scotland, which represents the higher education institutions, estimate that figure will be a bit more than 31,000 for this academic year.

Today's results showing Scottish students doing well in their Higher exams puts extra pressure on places, Universities Scotland says.

The Scottish government need to think again about funding more places, it claims.

Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, says:

We'd welcome a conversation with Government about the number of fully-funded university places available next year. The number getting a university place today is something to celebrate but there will be many who miss out despite being very capable. "Additional funded places would help universities to drive widening access further and ensure that highly qualified and well-deserving applicants, whatever their background, get the chance of a university education.

– Alastair Sim

I specifically asked the Scottish Government to comment on this statement.

A spokesperson replies:

Since 2007, the number of Scottish domiciled full-time first degree entrants to Scottish universities has risen by 11% and a record number of students successfully completed full-time higher education courses at colleges in 2014-15.

Our commitment to free tuition contributes to Scottish average student loan debt being the lowest in the UK and our minimum income guarantee of £7,625 for the poorest students living at home is currently the best anywhere in the UK.

– Government spokesperson
How will those from poorer backgrounds access higher education? Credit: PA

Critics of the Scottish government will argue that this response does not answer the point made by Universities Scotland, though of course SNP ministers would beg to differ.

But given the emphasis put on helping young people from poorer backgrounds, is there any evidence that they are doing better in terms of access to Universities? Yes there is.

According to Universities Scotland, record numbers of students from the most disadvantaged areas of Scotland have been accepted into university.

Measured by the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) postcode area, 3,370 Scots of all ages from the most disadvantaged 20% parts of Scotland (known as SIMD20) have been placed in university.

This is an increase of 5 per cent compared to 2015.

What these figures do not tell us, for now, is which Universities these young people from poorer areas are getting into.

And using SIMD20 - sorry for the jargon - also does not take into account of the fact that in more prosperous areas of Scotland there are areas of deprivation and poverty. We don't know how children from these areas are faring.

Lindsay Paterson, the professor of education policy at Edinburgh University, argues that capping the numbers will have a disproportionate effect on students from poorer backgrounds.

This is, he says, because Scottish students tend to go to Scottish universities and therefore "...you are in effect putting a ceiling on the number of students from deprived backgrounds who go to University".

Prof Paterson has also spotted another trend in the exam results today, which is that more students are sitting the National 5 exam, than the one below it in the range, the National 4.

This, Prof Paterson thinks, could be because the National 5 is an externally marked exam and parents and pupils may prefer that as being more concrete in terms of achievement than the National 4 which is internally marked by teachers or lecturers.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said:

Qualifications are available at a number of different levels so that all young people have a wide and flexible range of options to suit their aspirations and abilities. Both the SQA and the Scottish Government's Assessment and National Qualifications group will be reflecting on this year's diet, and considering any issues arising.

– Scottish Government spokesperson

So can we draw any general conclusions from today's exam results? Well, the problem of last year's very low pass mark in Maths appears to have gone away.

The problem of one question from this year's English paper leaking out and having to be replaced, appeared to have been overcome.

And overall Scottish pupils are, by these measures anyway, doing well thanks by the country's education system.

That does not, of course, mean that all is well, that everything in the educational garden is rosy.

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